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Students and faculty reflect on university well-being days across North Carolina

university-well-being-checks-days

This article is part of the Mental Health Collaborative, a project completed by nine North Carolina college newsrooms to cover mental health issues in their communities. To read more stories about mental health, explore the interactive project developed specifically for this collaborative.


Content Warning: This article contains mention of suicide. 

UNC-Chapel Hill senior Natalie Tuinstra said she sometimes finds it difficult to take a break.

"It's the grind,” she said. “It's the culture we're in.” 

In these moments, Tuinstra said she takes a step back and remembers a Dutch concept her dad taught her: “niksen,” the art of purposefully doing nothing.

Recently, a handful of universities across North Carolina seem to have employed a similar philosophy, including extra breaks in their academic calendars. During these days off, students are encouraged to take a step back from schoolwork and focus on their mental health.

These days, often called “wellness days,” arose in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A 2021 U.S. Surgeon General Advisory found that youth depression and anxiety symptoms — which were already on the rise — doubled during the pandemic, with 25 percent experiencing depressive symptoms and 20 percent experiencing anxiety. 

Now, three years later, some individuals cited in the advisory have reached young adulthood and are attending college. A study of thousands of college students, both before and during the pandemic, found that depression, alcohol use disorder, bulimia nervosa and comorbidity were higher during rather than before the pandemic. 

Universities across the nation have been enacting policies to combat these trends and improve students' well-being with policies like wellness days.

Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor at UNC-CH, said these days off are beneficial for students. 

"It kind of legitimizes taking a break in a way that wasn't present before," Fredrickson said.

However, adding wellness days to a university’s academic calendar may not be a perfect solution. Most North Carolina colleges don’t have wellness days, and some students and faculty at those that do have expressed suggestions on how to improve their impact.

University wellness days in North Carolina 

At least 14 universities across the state have implemented wellness days since 2020.

UNC-CH's well-being days — initially called wellness days — began in fall 2020 as a response to students requesting more breaks, UNC Media Relations said in an email. In the original announcement, former Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and former Provost Robert Blouin said the days off would replace the campus’s 2021 spring break in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.

A year later in fall 2021, N.C. A&T, the nation’s largest public Historically Black College and University, introduced wellness days to encourage students to practice self-care, Valerie Giddings, senior vice provost of academic affairs at N.C. A&T, said.

Then in 2022, following a string of student deaths, N.C. State University announced its first wellness day in an effort to let students “take a breath,” Chancellor Randy Woodson said in a video statement at the time.

Visualization: Only six schools in the UNC System have instituted wellness days this year

This year, N.C. State, N.C. A&T, Guilford College and Saint Augustine's University each scheduled two wellness days into their academic calendars. Elizabeth City State University scheduled four, and N.C. Central University and Shaw University each scheduled one. Winston-Salem State University scheduled one "Mental Health Day," and William Peace University scheduled two "Pacer Days." UNC-CH scheduled five well-being days — more than any other school in the state.

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At least four universities — Duke University, UNC Pembroke, UNC Greensboro and UNC School of the Arts — no longer include wellness days in their academic calendars.

Hurdles to taking breaks

Although encouraged to do so, some students say they find it difficult to take a break from school work on wellness days.

Generally, it is recommended that professors suspend coursework and deadlines on or adjacent to these days, but students at universities across the state said they have had deadlines within those times.

"That really defeats the purpose, especially if it's the day after the wellness day, because you have to then be using the wellness day to be doing those assignments," N.C. State sophomore Sophia McCall said

Eric Hastie, a teaching assistant professor in the UNC-CH biology department, said he hears similar complaints from his students. While he makes efforts to accommodate well-being days, he said college students need to learn time management and study skills. 

"I'm not negating their feelings at all," he said. "College is hard." 

Hastie said he uses well-being days to work without interruptions. But others, like Fredrickson, completely disconnect from work to focus on personal wellness.

"I think it's important to model for my students that they should take the day off," she said.

Fredrickson developed the “Broaden-and-Build Theory,” which supports the idea that positive emotions contribute to human resilience and well-being. She suspects her students wouldn’t give themselves a break if she didn’t reciprocate by giving herself one as well, because society is “addicted to achievement,” she said

While this mentality can drive students to succeed academically, it can also hinder their ability to take care of themselves by discouraging taking time off, N.C. A&T junior Kaylee Harper said.

But Fredrickson said taking occasional breaks leads to more productivity, not less.

One study found that employees performed better at work when they took self-initiated short breaks in the afternoons, as well as following nights of good sleep. These pauses can help people become stronger and more resilient, Fredrickson said

"There's no value in burning somebody out,” she said.

Tuinstra, who leads the mental health advocacy group Active Minds at Carolina, said she has seen the consequences of stress and burnout first-hand.

"You can do things that make you happy," she said. "You don't need to work yourself to the point of being sick."

‘A drop in the bucket’

Last spring, Emily Escobedo Ramirez wrote a column in Appalachian State University’s student newspaper, The Appalachian, urging her institution to not wait for a tragedy to occur before implementing wellness days.

“The necessity for wellness days is increasing, and will only continue if no action is taken,” she wrote.

At universities that do have wellness days, some schools schedule them to be weekend-adjacent, while others, like N.C. State’s, fall in the middle of the week.

McCall said she wishes her wellness days were on a Friday or Monday, rather than mid-week. She also said she wants professors to be required to respect these breaks when planning deadlines. 

But wellness days, Fredrickson said, are just a “drop in the bucket” when it comes to solving the student mental health crisis. 

Fredrickson said she believes universities like UNC-CH need to employ more mental health service providers and more flexibility with their students. 

Students at UNC-CH can walk into Counseling and Psychological Services on campus and speak with a therapist without making an appointment or waiting on a waitlist. Last semester, 1,812 students visited CAPS for walk-in appointments.

On a smaller scale, Fredrickson said students can improve their well-being by intentionally prioritizing positivity, social connection and time in nature.

Tuinstra said she believes in prioritizing preventative measures like peer support and wellness education, while others advocate for fostering open communication about mental health between students and universities.

"Just keep talking about it and publishing articles about it and making everybody aware that it's a problem,” Hastie said.

Rosegalie Cineus, editor-in-chief at The A&T Register, contributed reporting to this story. 

@allipardont

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Alli Pardue

Alli Pardue is the 2023-24 audience engagement editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served on the audience engagement desk as assistant editor and summer editor. Alli is a sophomore pursuing a major in media and journalism and a minor in Spanish for the professions.